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Big surprise: Asia wants a regional trade bloc that includes China

The Obama Administration's big idea was a Trans Pacific Partnership that magically excluded China.  It is the lynchpin, along with the "strategic pivot" of US military forces into East Asia, of his dreamt-of 21st century containment of China's rise.

The "pivot" idea is merely stupid, but the TPP was magnificently dumb.

We encouraged China's rise (after encouraging the tigers and before that South Korea and Japan) by playing regional military Leviathan and enabling their export driven growth by keeping our markets open.  The implicit deal:  take that trade surplus (now consolidated by assembler-of-last-resort China) and plow it back into US debt markets, keeping our dollar cheap and enabling more of the same (we import goods, we export security, everybody peacefully rises, and the world is a better place).

That transaction strategy, as I have called it, worked wonderfully for years and years.  But it came to its logical endpoint in the crash of 2008.  We simply can't sustain such a grand strategy any more and, frankly, we don't need to.  Asia is risen, it remains peaceful, and its logical regional integration now proceeds.

Can we still play Leviathan in this process?  At great cost, yes, but a Leviathan is not what is needed now. It is now longer a possible achievement, given China's rise, and attempting to maintain that status now only gets you unnecessary tensions and arms racing.  

Instead, the economic integration needs to be matched by suitable regional security arrangements.  Those arrangements tend to come via crises or hotspots like the South China Sea issue.  You either fix them or they fix you.

The new grouping is seen as a rival to a trade initiative of the Obama administration, the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes many of the same countries but excludes China.

The announcement came as China was facing pressure to back down from its hard-line stance in its disputes with four Southeast Asian countries over ownership of islands in the South China Sea.

What ASEAN's proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership says is that, no matter the lingering tension on the islets issue, Asia's economic and trade and investment integration will proceed.  And no, it won't be held hostage to Obama's containment fantasies.

Some analysts in Asia describe the Obama administration’s trade initiative as one element in a policy to contain China, the world’s largest producer and exporter of manufactured goods.

“China’s exclusion is strange, given its huge economic presence in the Asia-Pacific” region, Amitendu Palit, a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, wrote in a recent edition of East Asia Forum. “This has given rise to views that the United States is driving the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the strategic objective of marginalizing China.”

There are plenty of Chinese behaviors that we need to work, but we're no longer in charge of how things unfold in Asia, and no amount of military hardware parked there is going to change that.


Africa: investments and insurgents

Pair of WSJ stories:  first one on Carlyle Group joining the list of private equity firms rushing in with yet another Sub-Saharan Fund; and second on EU debating whether to fund a cohort of West African states looking to combat the radical Islamic militias that have taken over northern Mali with the intention of setting up their own separate state.

The combination is - to me - telling of that dynamic of rapid frontier integration that I'm always going on about.

Africa is, of course, not really a frontier in a settling sense, but it is one in a globalization-investment-trade sense.  And when you're a frontier in that sense, it's not surprising to see both dynamics in play, as the "rush" of connectivity creates its own blowback (the central theme of my books).

From the first piece:

The investments, and Carlyle's nascent Sub-Saharan Fund, targeted at $500 million, show how private-equity firms are trying to position themselves to tap into the continent's new consumers as well as companies that are expanding on the back of demand for food and energy from the rest of the world.  Competition among global rivals is heating up in Africa, as investment returns diminish in more developed parts of the world.

From the second piece:

West Africa countries are trying to set up the force to help Mali to regain control of its northern half, which is under the sway of the al Qaeda affiliate, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.  The nations say northern Malie is becoming a haven for violent groups that live off kidnapping and trafficking as well as a training ground for terrorists who could destabilize the whole region.

I mean, seriously, I bet I could find you similar stories in U.S. East Coast newspapers from 1870-something that describe new funds and new military efforts being launched for the American West.

The speed of both dynamics is, in terms relative to even our recent past, rather stunning.  The worst thing I wrote in The Pentagon's New Map concerned my pessimism over Africa's future.  I just had the whole thing taking far longer than it is.

And that's a real lesson for me.


You know that recurring dream about going back to high school?

Spending school day lecturing to three AP Government classes at Son #1's H.S.

Pretty fun, actually.

Ate lunch with the teachers in their lounge.

Great school. Made my senior son happy.




Obesity epidemic: one variant of the punitive approach

WSJ headline says Denmark scraps it's "much-maligned 'fat tax' after a year."

Danish lawmakers have killed a controversial "fat tax" one year after its implementation, after finding its negative effect on the economy and the strain it has put on small businesses far outweigh the health benefits.

Nations including Switzerland, the U.K, and Germany have held up the tax, which applies to any food containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, as a potential model for addressing obesity and other health concerns. But in Denmark, it has been a source of pain for consumers, food producers and retailers as the nation's economy struggles.

"The fat tax is one of the most maligned we [have] had in a long time," Mette Gjerskov, the minister for food, agriculture and fisheries, said during a news conference Saturday announcing the decision to dump the tax. "Now we have to try improving the public health by other means."

The failure of Denmark's fat tax is a demonstration of how difficult it can be to modify behavior by slapping additional duties on products seen by many as essential staples, especially during tough economic times. Products such as butter, oil, sausage, cheese and cream were subject to increases of as much as 9% immediately after the new tax was enacted.

"What made consumers upset was probably that an extra tax was put on a natural ingredient," said Sinne Smed, a professor at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics.

The fat tax comes to an end after netting an estimated €170 million ($216 million) in 2012 in new revenue. Danish lawmakers will slightly raise income taxes and reduce personal tax deductions to offset the lost revenue. The lawmakers also decided on Saturday to reverse an earlier decision to create a sugar tax.

"This is not what is needed in the current economic situation," said Holger Nielsen, Denmark's minister for taxation.

Human bodies are designed to crave fat, especially when we're stressed.  The body is telling us to store up because things seem dangerous.  This is evolution talking:  if things are going south, better to stockpile fat now for the bad days ahead.

Problem is, modern life creates all sorts of stresses and modern food companies love moving this sort of product, because it nets them the highest profits.

End result:  an obesity epidemic.  The food companies know how to trigger our interest, and life provides all manner of stimuli that triggers our desire.  The cost is pushed downstream.  

Governments want cheap food but then regret the healthcare bill that follows.  Governments then try to go punitive - actually on the consumer - by issuing a fat tax that the sellers pass on directly.  Consumers get mad, tax gets scrapped.

Conservatives yell, "nanny state."  But in truth, Western governments already lavish the ag and food industries with subsidies that encourage all this, meaning the nanny state is already here, she's just encouraging us to eat the worst sorts of food (or the most profitable to sellers).  In relative terms, veggies and fruits aren't subsidized, grains are.  So we're being fatted up by our nanny state for the healthcare providers.

Governments can't disincentivize bad eating by taxing people.  They need to rejigger the already bad incentive system for ag and food companies.

Still, the fact that states are trying is an indicator of the progressive agenda that eventually must come.

But Big Food wins another round ("See, the evil government is trying to deny you your bad diet!"  Cha-ching!)


Funniest SNL video ever (for me, at least)

Painfully true, like I wrote this!


Fun with Son #2


Saudi America

Title of the WSJ's lead editorial on Tuesday.

Two charts displaying the tectonic shift afforded by fracking technology.

This, plus fiscal constraints, makes for a new definition of US superpower-dom.

Let the debate begin ...


Greece: how bad does it get?

Malaria still existed throughout much of the US in the 1930s/40s.  Since then it has gotten much warmer throughout the US.  But malaria is basically gone now.  Why?  Rising incomes.

So the point on global warming is, it'll create real problems wherever states and societies don't have the money to deal with the challenges - such as insect migration.

Now take a look at this chart from the WSJ and realize what happens when incomes fall - and how quickly.

Recently, Wikistrat ran a sim where we discussed the possibility of states making sovereign land sales.  Several analysts said that, while that happened in previous centuries (note how most of America was acquired), nobody would consider that now.

My comeback was, if the financial situation gets bad enough, countries will sell just like people get rid of an underwater house.

Greece is looking pretty bad, and I think it's a harbinger of massive debt issues to come for a demographically aging West.

The discussion we had was about the Arctic and the possibility of some Arctic Council members selling out to non-members so as to tap the finance needed for exploitation of opportunities.  After all, the US bought its seat at the table - aka, Alaska.


South China Sea energy: just how valuable/feasible?

FT story on new Chinese estimate for natural gas ("far greater reserves . . . than previously thought") in South China Sea (roughly 500T cubic feet).  Also 17B tonnes of oil.

Yes, those are both weird British measures.

But the accompanying reality:

Although only a fraction of those resources would be economically feasible to extract, analysts calculate that the levels of reserves could one day double China's current proven reserves in oil and gas.

Hmm.  A doubling of reserves, but the new stuff is largely not worth extracting.  I'll leave the glass-half-full/empty calculation to others.

Piece also quotes Hu Jintao on way out of power declaring that next generation of leaders must make China a "maritime power."


But Wang Yilin, boss of CNOOC, while noting that Hu's words "showed the way," also said "the company wanted to 'lay aside disputes and develop [the South China Sea reserves] jointly' with international companies."

So there you have it:  China is declared to be way behind as a maritime power, so it must build up those assets. Big reason is South China Sea and all those energy reserves, even if only a fraction will ever be pulled and that difficult feat requires lots of joint ventures with foreign energy firms.

Sounds like WWIII to me.  Thank God for the AirSea Battle Concept, because we all know that sea control = seabed control (sort of).  I foresee vast drone forces duking it out over a no-man's water.  It'll cost several fortunes, but all those unfeasibly-accessed energy reserves will pay for it.

You have your orders.


Tom Searcy's and Henry DeVries' "How to Close a Deal Like Warren Buffett"

Shameless book plug here.   I've known Tom Searcy for a while (see his interview of me here) and he's written a really cool book with Henry J. DeVries entitled, How to Close a Deal Like Warren Buffett: Lessons from the World's Greatest Dealmaker.  I did an early review a while back and offered a blurb which appears in the front material and on the back cover.  In full it reads:

Searcy and DeVries have made their own science of dissecting how persuasion leads to decisions leads to big deals.  This book is Dale Carnegie reconfigured for the business world.

--Thomas Barnett, contributing editor of Esquire and author
of Great Powers: America and the World After Bush

The book's promo page is found here.

The book basically parses out Buffett's many maxims on how to conduct one's business life, with the proximate focus being which deals to pursue and close. But like any good book, this one actually speaks about a whole lot more than the subject material at hand. In sum, it has an almost spiritual feel, as it's as much a guide to a life well led as a deal well structured.

I do highly recommend it.


No-fault separatism thanks to globalization

Old argument of mine:  globalization comes in and all manner of divorces ensue.  Typically it's a fake state in the Gap that's coming apart at the artificial seams, but the larger point is, the more overarching multinationalism you have, the lower the cost of divorce/remapping.  You're going to be together anyway (you still have the "kids" of the union), but why stay together if you don't have to?

Europe demonstrates this:  the more integrated it becomes, the more states appear.

Great FT one-pager on "long-simmering separatist movements . . . gaining strength."  You might think it's the Eurozone troubles that is responsible, but that's the proximate opportunity - not the ultimate enabler.  Real federalism is coming, so why not get out of your unhappy marriage in the bargain?

Here's the counterintuitive part: it's often the most competent and richest that want out.  The better want to leave behind the worse.

So this isn't about suffering.  This is about ambition.


The RMB can't be a reserve currency yet - be can it still act a bit like one?


FT op-ed certainly has me thinking.

Reality of a reserve currency:  you need to be willing to leave large amounts of it lying beyond your shores. People need ready access to it.  You can't be in a serious capital importing mode (which tends to happen when you grow).

So, most experts say, China can internationalize the use of the RMB but it won't be  a real reserve currency because China won't allow large enough amounts to float around out there (Beijing wants tight control over value), plus, the country still needs to develop a vast impoverished interior of half-a-billion people, so it'll be in the capital-importing mode (trade surplus, investment) for a long time.

Makes sense.

But then Arvind Subramanian (smart guy on China) and Martin Kessler (I don't know) write this op-ed in the FT, pointing out that East Asia is "now a renminbi bloc because the currencies of seven out of the 10 countries in the region - including South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand - track the renminbi more closely than the US dollar."

Same is becoming true for India, Chile, Israel, South Africa and Turkey.  That's some real influence, ja?

In their minds, these are the "gravitational forces of economics" that China naturally exerts over major trading partners.  No, China ain't big enough to do that to the dollar (would that it could so we might gain some discipline from somebody besides the more bankrupt EU), but already we see the emergence of a RMB East Asian monetary regime.

Again, nothing happens over night.  But ask yourself:  you think this is going to go away or get stronger over time?

If it's the latter, then we're looking at the future.

What this means for China, oddly enough:  as it is forced into certain reforms, now it ends up having to take into account not just what happens inside China but across the implicit RMB monetary regime that is East Asia.

But the upside:  "If China were to liberalise its financial and currency markets, the lure of the renminbi would broaden and quicken."

Old bit of mine:  more you want to connect, the more you are subject to all manner of rules - and they come in so many forms and sizes, but they all constrain.  Success is interdependent; failure is all your own.

Fascinating stuff.


China not-so-bad sign: no longer growth-at-all-costs

Nice NYT story on growth of (primarily) middle class resistance to unlimited growth ambitions WRT environmental damage.  Most experts who track the grass-root democracy arising in China have noted its strong concentration in the environmental realm.  

It's a natural development that we've seen everywhere else a middle class historically arises:  once you get to a certain level of GDP ($4-7,000) you start caring about the environment a whole lot more.

Chart shows all the places where projects have been delayed/cancelled in response to popular demands.

Point being:  all part of the natural slowdown in growth that comes with modernization.  Things get more complex.  The public puts up with less crap.  China is not different in this regard whatsoever.

As I've noted for years now, Asian countries that modernize and open up to globalization typically do so as single-party states (either explicit or de facto) for about 5 decades.  Then things change.

That logic says China goes democratic in the 2020s - or faster.


4-5 in presidential elections


Lost to Reagan twice and HW once.

Won twice with Clinton.

Lost twice with Bush.

Won twice with Obama.

Voted once in WI, twice in MA, once in MD, once in VA, twice in RI and twice now in IN.

What always gets me in the end?  Supreme Court Justice picks. You don't think about it much on election day, but man, do you ever when somebody announces a retirement (or death).  I just keep thinking about all those 5-4 decisions, like the recent one on the healthcare law (which I support).

Also this time: the sense that the GOP is losing its grip.  Way too obstructionist over Obama's first term.  Now polling lower than Independents, which stuns me.  Losing women, which is a long-term issue of significance. Losing Hispanics, another long-term issue.  The GOP is not a healthy lot, and their talent seems thinner than ever.  it is becoming the party of scared white people in a multinational union experiencing unprecedented demographic change.  That's not a winning proposition.

The Dems, meanwhile, have much better long-term prospects.  Thus some genuine system utility in hopefully seeing the GOP realize how far they've drifted.

Yes, there will be many within the GOP that says "we lost because we nominated a moderate."  But a hardliner would have done far worse, in my opinion - just driving up the Dem advantages on minorities and gender and sexual orientation (not a small percentage to ignore by any means).  Simply put, that tent needs to be expanded because the GOP is running third right now.

And no, I don't think the GOP should draw much satisfaction from the popular vote.  It's simply amazing that Obama won with the recovery coming so late.  Six months from now he'd win by a much bigger margin.

Why do I worry about the GOP?  In the end, they are more likely to be the agent of triggering a new progressive era (remember TR) than the Dems.  I can see the Dems joining in with relish.  I just suspect they won't have enough panic within their ranks to initiate.

So I'm hoping the GOP eventually locates that panic.

The clear pattern:  states with borders largely go Dem and inland states overwhelmingly go Republican.  It's just like China's emerging split and that of risers everywhere.  States that face out versus states that face in.  In the U.S., it's who's more open on immigration and less China-bashing versus who's tougher on immigration and more China-bashing.  The GOP simply doesn't work as the party of fear.


China bad sign #2: young professionals leaving in record numbers

Yes, a brain drain as reported in the NYT.

At 30, Chen Kuo had what many Chinese dream of: her own apartment and a well-paying job at a multinational corporation. But in mid-October, Ms. Chen boarded a midnight flight for Australia to begin a new life with no sure prospects.

Like hundreds of thousands of Chinese who leave each year, she was driven by an overriding sense that she could do better outside China. Despite China’s tremendous economic successes in recent years, she was lured by Australia’s healthier environment, robust social services and the freedom to start a family in a country that guarantees religious freedoms.

“It’s very stressful in China — sometimes I was working 128 hours a week for my auditing company,” Ms. Chen said in her Beijing apartment a few hours before leaving. “And it will be easier raising my children as Christians abroad. It is more free in Australia.”

As China’s Communist Party prepares a momentous leadership change in early November, it is losing skilled professionals like Ms. Chen in record numbers. In 2010, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a 45 percent increase over 2000.

Guess who wins this lottery, as usual?

When experts note that China modernized and marketized and opened-up to the world for the past 40 years and the Party still rules, they miss the reality of what happens when a critical mass middle class appears and starts wanting more than just a rising income.

That day has arrived.

So no, it's not a question of "Can China ever go democratic?"  It's only a question of when.

There is nothing unique about Chinese or Asian civilization in this regard.  Modernization is modernization.  People are people.  Democracy isn't achieved because it's fabulous.  It happens because it's the best worst system you can manage when you reach the point of genuine development.


China: big bad sign #1 (money leaks out)

Wealthy Chinese citizens are moving their money abroad: "buying beachfront condos in Cyprus, paying big U.S. tuition bills for their children and stocking up on luxury goods in Singapore, frequently moving cash secretly through a flourishing network of money-transfer agents."

Last 12 months, estimates the WSJ, 3% of China's GDP slips overseas this way.

Two ways of looking at this:

  1. When locals move cash, it's because they fear a crash, and who knows the local situation better?
  2. The rich fear for their wealth in China.  They know they've amassed "too much" and/or they know the Party won't do what is necessary to protect it with rule of law (see, Bo Xilai).

Either way, not a good sign.

After all these years of do-nothing Hu, Xi is going to be under tremendous pressure to fix things.


How Romney (and the Republicans) are screwed by demographics

Pair of WSJ stories.

Front-pager lead from yesterday notes that "Election May Hinge On Latino Turnout."  Get used to that headline, and get used to it working against the immigration-unfriendly GOP.

Obama is currently polling at 70% (Romney 25%) among the fastest growing segment of the electorate.

The key to Obama's win, we are told, is getting out the vote.

Second story covers that in a way that will infuriate Republicans, but it's their own damn fault:

Thousands of illegal-immigrant youths are at the forefront of national efforts to get immigrant and Latino citizens to the polls next week, the latest demonstration of the increasingly organized and vocal group's power.

In swing states like Florida, Ohio and Colorado, the young people—often referred to as Dreamers after the failed Dream Act legislation that would have offered them a path to citizenship—are running phone banks, going door to door and approaching students on college campuses to encourage voting. They also are active in California, a Democratic stronghold, and Texas, where Republicans have the edge.

The group is targeting Latinos, the fastest-growing electorate in the U.S., whose turnout at the polls is traditionally lower than that of blacks and whites. Polls show an overwhelming advantage for President Barack Obama among Latino voters, but the Dreamers efforts also could boost Democratic support in state and congressional races, supporters and opponents agree.

The revenge of the denied citizens!

We shoot ourselves in the foot regarding Latin America, which, over the long term, is our greatest source of economic growth and ultimately power.

We shoot ourselves in the foot over immigration and drugs.

Immigration is what keeps this country "young."  We are mean age 36 right now, but that will rise to just under 40 at 2050, primarily because of immigration and the high fertility associated with that (for the first 2-3 generations).  By way of contrast, China, which is also 36 years old now, will reach almost 48 by 2050, which will constitute a huge drag on its economy.

But China's long-term advantage is this:  it's surrounded by younger regions poised for lengthy demographic dividends (high proportion of workers to dependents).  First there's SE Asia, which will enjoy a demographic dividend on par with China's of the last 4 decades, and then there's India, which will enjoy an even bigger one through mid-century.

Being surrounded by faster growing economies is a sure way to lift your own as growth tapers off due to modernity, advanced status, slowing demographics, etc.  So, long term, China gets a lot of help.

We could too via Latin America, if we didn't make the drug war the centerpiece of our foreign policy throughout the hemisphere.  Instead, we cede a lot of that growth to others (Europe, Asia) when we should be expanding southward as a center of gravity in free-trade zones and ultimately as a multinational union.

But that will all come with time.  We just don't have any political leaders with genuine vision.

But get us to 2050, when one of three US voters will have some Hispanic blood in them?  Hmm.  Much will change.

Republicans will lose more and more elections until they change their anti-growth tune.  They are swimming against the tide called the future.


You rediscover your past when you plan on making some near-term history

It's that old Winston Churchill bit about how you can't think ahead into the future any further than you can reach back and remember your past.  It's a balancing act.

Neat NYT article on how Turkey is rediscovering its history via film ("As if the Ottoman period never ended.") Nothing says, "growing regional/global ambitions" quite like that.

The Ottoman period, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries, was marked by geopolitical dominance and cultural prowess, during which the sultans claimed the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world, before the empire’s slow decline culminated in World War I. For years the period was underplayed in the history taught to schoolchildren, as the new Turkish Republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 sought to break with a decadent past.

Now, as Turkey is emerging as a leader in the Middle East, buoyed by strong economic growth, a new fascination with history is being reflected in everything from foreign policy to facial hair. In the arts, framed examples of Ottoman-era designs, known as Ebru and associated with the geometric Islamic motifs adorning mosques, have gained in popularity among the country’s growing Islamic bourgeoisie, adorning walls of homes and offices, jewelry and even business cards.

I know a lot of people harbor a lot of fears about Turkey, but I think it's the best thing that's happened to the Middle East in a long time.  If we didn't have a Turkey to play lead goose on the Arab Spring, we'd have to invent one.

Bring on the Gallipoli films (all four of them)!


The sad truth about a second Obama presidency

From David Brooks in the NYT yesterday:  the reality that a Romney presidency compromising with a Democratic Senate would lead to a decent amount of necessary reform (including dropping the Bush tax cuts), while an Obama presidency would lead to very little advance and continue the general political gridlock in DC.


Romney isn't much of a right-winger.  That's all a sales job that's been rather effectively ditched in recent days and weeks to emphasize he'd really rule center-right.  If he squeaks in, that's the mandate he'd have.  He'd be realistic, as he was in Massachusetts, with the Democratic Senate, and things would get done.  Plenty of compromises would follow, and Romney would largely be villified by the far-right - not the far-left.

In truth, Obama isn't much of a left-winger.  He'd continue ruling center-left, but the nutcases in the GOP-dominated House would continue doing their best to sabotage all progress, pushing him, in his second term, primarily into foreign affairs as a refuge.  For Obama to win, as he looks like he will (just barely), via a very negative campaign, he'll enter office with virtually no mandate.  Dems will be happy enough to forestall the GOP nutcases in the House, but we'd be looking at 4 more years of stasis (and no, the complete nonsense sales-job of America going whatever by 2016 under Obama doesn't register with me).  Frankly, I think Romney would likely do a far better job of finessing Obamacare (originally, Romneycare) into full existence.

I agree with Brooks' analysis completely.  As much as I dislike the vast majority of the Republican agenda, this is my primary reason for preferring Romney to a second Obama term:  I see the promise of advance under Romney; and I see virtually no chance of any under Obama.

And I prefer some progress to none - simple as that.

But, in truth, I have no individual say in the matter.  Indiana will go Romney by a wide margin, so my vote will be meaningless.


Squarespace holds on! Meanwhile, the latest from 538 on POTUS election

Always follow Nate Silver's site around election time.